The Sands of Time
Pyramids of Mars
|Dates||Oct. 25, 1975 -
Nov. 15, 1975
With Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen.
Written by Stehpen Harris. Script-edited by Robert Holmes.
Directed by Paddy Russell. Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe.
|Synopsis: The Doctor faces the ancient god Sutekh, who is engineering his release from captivity and preparing to slaughter all living beings in the cosmos.|
Powerful, And I'm Not Talking About Sutekh by Dennis McDermott 13/6/97
Here is one that I would unabashedly put in my Top Ten. Pyramids of Mars is simply the best Tom Baker story in his first few seasons, its only rivals being The Genesis of the Daleks and The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
The story is very strong, wedding Egyptian mythology to the science fiction of the Whovian universe. The conceit here is that the Egyptian gods were real and fought a battle after which they imprisoned their chief criminal, Sutekh, in a pyramid. But Sutekh gets his chance to escape when Professor Scarman inadvertantly enters his lair and gives Sutekh a tool. The Doctor's task: prevent Sutekh from using Scarman to destroy the Osirians power plant on Mars, thus freeing Sutekh to destroy the universe.
It is fascinating to watch the Doctor match wits with an Egyptian God. That he was able to do so, coming close a couple of times to defeating him before actually doing so, is a credit to the Doctor's ingenuity. Bernard Archard as Scarman was as threatening as any Who villain, and Gabriel Woolf, as Sutekh, was chillingly convincing -- not an inconsiderable accomplishment since he had only his voice and a few hand movements to do it with.
The real star of this story, however, is its director, Paddy Russell. Students of how to create suspenseful chase scenes ought to study how Russell put together the mummy robot's pursuit of the Doctor and Sarah Jane. Doctor Who generally doesn't do chase scenes well; it did it to perfection here.
Are there problems in this story? The ending was a little to deus ex machina for my taste, but that's a minor problem. If I was to put together a list of must watch Doctor Who episodes, the Pyramids of Mars would be prominent.
A Review by Joseph Nunweek 26/1/98
I found Pyramids Of Mars to be the perfect example of Doctor Who working in every way. First: it was perfectly sized as a four-parter, which meant there was little padding, and the plot was engaging. Second, Tom Baker and Liz Sladen performed well and played off each other superbly. Michael Sheard was brilliant as Laurence Scarman grieving as he comes to terms with the fact that his brother is dead. Sutekh was well performed and chilling, a being living solely on causing the death and destruction of all life in the galaxy. Third: the design was good-- from the robotic mummies to the lavish historical sets, costumes and locations to the well-done FX, which were very good as far as Doctor Who effects go. Fourth: the story contains some of the best scenes from the era, notably the painful scene where Marcus's personality tries to talk to Laurence before Sutekh kills him in cold blood.
If there are problems, the ending, as Dennis points out, is far too deus ex machina. I thought that with Sutekh rendered immobile by a Martian pyramid, and the Ice Warriors should have got a mention. Anyway, these problems are hardly enough to spoil a story of this caliber,and I would really recommend this story to a new Doctor Who fan.
The Jewel in the Crown by Guy Thompson 7/1/99
The title of this review pretty much sums up what I think of Pyramids of Mars. Every aspect of the story is exemplary. A first class script has been created from Lewis Griefer's original outline and revised by Robert Holmes, every single actor is outstanding however large or small their part, the direction is slick and fast-moving, the music is superb and highly atmospheric, and even the special effects are pretty good!
The story is pretty-much self-contained in that there is very little reliance on the series' past, and the relatively simple plot concerning the release on the Osiran mercenary Sutekh from a thousand-year prison is resolved more than adequately over the space of the four episodes, and as far as I can see there are no loose threads left anywhere, which is almost unique for Doctor Who. The look of the story benefits from having large sections shot on film giving it quite a cinematic look, but the story is so strong it hardly matters and merely acts as a bonus on subsequent re-viewings.
As stated previously the acting is superb; Tom Baker giving possibly his best ever interpretation of the role, grim and determined concerned more with the larger picture of Sutekh's release than of the deaths of individuals. The walking corpse of Marcus Scarman is chillingly portrayed, and Sutekh himself is certainly the most effective "voice" villain in the show's history (compared to Omega, Azal, Morbius, etc.). The service robots are excellently realised, their superb design and single-pace walking making them memorable and disturbing.
If you haven't already seen Pyramids of Mars then you shouldn't be reading this review, you should be stuck in front of your video watching it religiously.
A Review by Greg Cook 22/8/99
Pyramids of Mars serves as perhaps the best introduction to Doctor Who for the casual viewer. Show this serial to your friend; if he doesn't like it, give up on converting him from Star Wars and its ilk. This episode contains almost all the wonderfully good and laughably bad elements of Doctor Who that we've come to love. Consider:
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 14/5/01
Who Fans are fond of evaluating every aspect of their favourite programme – in all its guises. Pyramids of Mars is constantly voted near the top of any TV poll carried out. For me it is the top. It represents all that is great about DW.
First off is the Doctor. The 4th Doctor is usually voted the best Doctor. This story shows why. It has Tom Baker at his most mysterious and charismatic. Having had over a year to make the part his own, he creates the definitive article – and this story has it. The Doctor has never been more dominant and central to everything.
Second is the Companion. Sarah-Jane is usually voted the best Companion. This story again shows why. She is just very, very likeable. You feel as though you know her, she was the girl who you could be friends with at School. The girl you would like to take home to meet your parents when you were a teenager. Liz Sladen’s delightful portrayal has never been better than here. The pairing of the Doctor and Sarah-Jane works a treat.
Third is the story. Written by Robert Holmes (usually voted the best Writer of Who) it takes all that is great about the old Mummy films, and integrates is onto DW. The programme always did this, taking the best from other genre, producing a very Who-like take on it. The dialogue is sparkling – the characters well thought out and brought to life.
Fourth is the Design. The House interiors stand out here, but the Pyramids of Mars have the definitive Corridor Sets seen so much in the series. The Egyptian motif is constantly executed with flair.
Fifth is the Villain and Monsters. Sutekh is a brilliant Baddie, make no mistake about that. His power is all-encompassing. This makes the Doctor’s triumph over him that much more special. The Mummies are very frightening – as all the good Dr Who monsters are. Doctor Who takes a definitive monster from the Silver Screen, and actually makes it better and more scary.
Never has a story merged all these aspects so well. There are dozens of splendid moments that linger in the memory:- Sarah pursued by the Mummy through the woods. The Doctor travelling down the Tunnel into Sutekh’s lair.
In the Tom Baker Years Video, Tom Baker watched a excerpt of this story. He describes it as “Very Good, very good indeed”. He was visibly impressed with the look of the story – and clearly had great memories of it. Who am I to argue with the Great Man. There is so much Good Doctor Who. There is a fair bit of Great Doctor Who. But this stands right up there looking down on the rest of them. 10/10
Mummy Dearest by Andrew Wixon 30/1/02
It took me a long time to appreciate Pyramids of Mars for what it is. The first time I read a synopsis it seemed unintelligible, the first time I saw it on video (in the late 80s) I couldn't see past the faintly dodgy production values. But I distinctly remember watching it again one night in late 1995 and thinking, 'I'm not getting bored of this. I could watch this over again right now. This is a bit special, this.' And it is. But not in the obvious way.
There is a lot wrong with Pyramids of Mars. The plot is riddled with gaping holes and contrivances (why doesn't Sutekh build his rocket in Egypt? Why does he bother coming down the time tunnel at the end?), illogical elements are included solely for effect (such as the trip to the alternate 1980, which as I've said elsewhere doesn't make sense). Sutekh has cushion trouble. Perhaps most seriously, the final episode, after a fantastic start, quickly settles down to be the least interesting of the story.
But it doesn't seem to matter because this story is so much greater than any of these things. The script is an alchemical mixture of horror, SF, and fantasy, performed brilliantly by a tiny cast. The Baker/Sladen chemistry is at its greatest. The score is wonderful - the organ music in part one never fails to make my skin crawl. All these things grab you from the start and stop you from thinking too hard about the plot.
There's also an element of bluff going on here, too: you believe that this is one of the Doctor's greatest and most important adventures ever simply because the story repeatedly tells you as much - the Doctor frequently comments that he's never faced an adversary as powerful as Sutekh before (he seems to have a point), the side-trip to 1980 is just for show but its novelty value ensures the story seems that bit more special. (Many of the story's most memorable sequences - the burning carpet when Scarman arrives, the pursuit of Clements by the mummies - add very little to the narrative, but an enormous amount to the atmosphere.)
So, yes, it's a flawed story. But the flaws seem immaterial next to the towering quality of the rest of the story. Basically it's a confidence trick, all done with mirrors - but a massively successful one. One of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever told.
A Review by Gareth McG 12/2/02
Pyramids of Mars is justly lauded as one of the best moments in Who history. However upon writing this review I find myself immediately wanting to get two massive frustrations with the story out of my system. I'll start with the pathetic cop out of a conclusion in which Sutekh loses a battle he had played so well throughout the programme because Mars time is ahead of Earth time. Not likely for someone who, in the Doctor's words, "thinks of everything". But far more seriously this type of thing questions the whole integrity of Doctor Who and it's a recurring problem with the programme. Time corridors/ time traps are simply overused in Doctor Who when writers run out of ideas. This is true for three of the four stories that I've reviewed thus far (The Five Doctors, Resurrection of the Daleks and now Pyramids). Ok so Sutekh may have become careless believing that the Doctor was no longer a threat but the writers could have worked that idea around a much more satisfying conclusion. In retrospect there didn't seem any reason to include the time corridor in this story at all and anyway if Sutekh was so debilitated then how did he manage to create such an ingenious device? My other qualm, believe it or not, is with Sutekh himself. He is chilling to begin with but loses his menace completely when he removes his mask, looking more like an anaemic cow than a deadly villain who is ready to take over the world.
But I'm not going to keep moaning because I liked most of the rest of the story. Perhaps my favourite part is the idea of alternative time. The Doctor travelling to 1980 in the TARDIS shows Sarah-Jane and Lawrence what the future would look like if Sutekh were to be freed of his curse -- a destitute, storm-ridden wreck. I also love when Doctor Who is set in the countryside because the beautiful scenery always gives it such a timeless feel. I especially like it when there are darker elements lurking beneath this natural beauty. It is for this reason that the poacher is a valuable inclusion in the story. This is a simple man out doing a predictable day's work. His sheer bewilderment at what is going on around him -- Egyptian mummies in the forest, a force field surrounding the forest, and an evil Marcus Scarman -- is brilliantly portrayed.
Marcus Scarman himself, the possessed victim of Sutekh, is given a stunning portrayal and looks horrific with his ashen complexion and wide, black eyes. Tom Baker and Liz Sladen are a great partnership here. Baker varies from being funny to being abrupt and moody but Sladen with her chiding wit and responsible nature doesn't let him get away with a thing and that's just what this Doctor needs so as not to get carried away with himself. The scene in the forest hut in which Sarah unwittingly throws a box of explosives at the disbelieving Doctor and the banter that follows is just wonderful. Baker's mood is so changeable though and a delightful example of his irritability is when he retorts Lawrence with "Well if I didn't know I wouldn't ask -- don't be obtuse man." Lawrence is also an interesting character because he's an enthusiast, an early scientist (this being 1911) on the verge of a major breakthrough. It's amusing when the Doctor congratulates him on inventing the radio scope before producing his own modern version. It's also wonderful to watch Lawrence's sheer sense of excitement when he steps inside the TARDIS - even the Doctor smiles. It's these affectionate qualities that make it all the more heartbreaking to watch Lawrence's lack of acceptance of his brothers condition, despite repeated warnings from the Doctor, which leads to his subsequent death. We feel for him, knowing that we'd probably do exactly the same if we were in his position.
On top of this gallery of superb characters we have a fabulous plot, brilliantly wedding history and mythology with science fiction. All in all then Pyramids of Mars is a great yarn with lovely attention to detail but it falls short of truly classic status because of a few careless errors.
A nice rebound by Mike Jenkins 19/2/02
After the somewhat damp squib we know as Planet of Evil, this story was a welcome return to the consistency of classic stories we've come to expect this far into the Baker era. There is great Baker humour, and some of the greatest interplay with Sladen and Baker (with the possible acception of The Seeds of Doom) that we will see. Not only is there humour but mystery and intrigue as well. Everyone is given at least one classic line (with the possible acception of the brother of the man who became possessed by Sutekh).
The scenes on Mars have the suitible Egyptian feel that they should and the effects are nicely done as well. This surely proves that anyone who says Doctor Who doesn't do pseudo science well isn't in his/her right mind. I love that possesion pose the archeologist has and the Egyptian is both funny and interesting. The atmosphere and the feeling of the story is what makes it hang together. The wandering and chasing in the house is nicely handled and well paced so it isn't padding and doesn't detract from the acting. The chase scenes have a goth murder mystery feel because of the house and the force field and missle ideas are all wonderfully conceived, as is the Doctor's encounter with Sutekh.
My review is probably a little biased as I have always been fascinated by Egyptian mythology. This was certainly an inspiration for the film Stargate (interesting but flat) and it's partner TV show (a waste of time). I'm really trying hard to find anything to complain about but I can't. This one's probably a top ten favorite and the best story of Tom's second season by a long shot. This story represents far more for me what the Baker era was all about than The Seeds of Doom.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 30/4/02
One of the smartest things that the Hinchcliffe/Holmes team was smart in doing was in creating strong villains to counteract the very strong personality of Tom Baker's fourth Doctor. In Pyramids of Mars, we have one of the best examples of this thought, in Sutekh.
The story itself, is standard H/H fare, with nods to the Hammer Mummy films. The Fourth Doctor and Sarah are dragged off course to the site of UNIT HQ in 1911, where the animated corpse of Marcus Scarman is helping to free Sutekh, last of the Osirans from his prison in Egypt.
We get a great protrayal of the regulars. Tom is his usual excellent self, although more alien than in some of the other stories of this era. Sarah, is as always, Sarah, but also gets to show her tough side -- her handling of the rifle, for example.
Garbiel Woolfe, using only his voice, give Sutekh weight and menace. Bernard Archard is genuinely creepy as the possessed Marcus Scarman.
The story, rewitten extensibly by Robert Holmes, is laden with some very classic DW scenes and dialogue. My personal favorite scene is when Sarah discovers Lawrence Scarman dead, and the Doc puts things in perspective: "Four, Sarah. Five, if you count the professor himself. And it will be the first of millions if Sutekh isn't stopped." Then there's that brilliant scene in the TARDIS in episode 2, with the Doctor showing Sarah the consequences of not stopping Sutekh and Lawrence and the Doc discussing the ability to change the future. It's rare the the show ventured into the effects of time travel, and rarely is it done better here.
We have a couple of nods back to the Pertwee era, especially with the poacher caught in the barrier set by Sutekh and chased by the Mummy robots. The difference is that these scenes are played very straight, and add a dimension of terror where in the Pertwee era would have been played for laughs.
In an odd way, the ending is based on very sound scientific principles -- the time lapse effect for the signal to go from Mars to Earth. It's a nice touch that in a show noted for technobabble, they would slip sound science into the mix.
The direction is good, and we have some menacing organ music compliments of Dudley Simpson. The Mummies are one of the better creations, very believable.
Pyramids of Mars is another Tom Baker/ H&H classic. It moves at
a brisk pace, holds up on many levels and features very strong
performances. It's a story you can't go wrong with.
Pyramids of Mars is one of those generally well loved stories by fandom, one that even Tom Haters tend not to bash all that much. As for my own opinion on Pyramids, the short version is that it's a fave-rave, but I enjoy it more for the interaction between Tom and Lis, the performances of Bernard Archer and Michael "special guest star" Sheard, and two standout scenes, the "Choose the Future scene," and the "Know thine enemy" segment.
This is more a review of the DVD itself, something I've been meaning to do with some of the other DVD releases I've gotten.
The transfer for the episodes loooks gorgeous, as usual. Dialogue and music/fx sounds are bright and clear.
The Commentary: Michael Sheard, Lis Sladen, Philip Hinchcliffe, with Paddy Russell excerpts thrown in for specific scenes. It's one of the best, as good as the Tom/Lis/Phil commentary on Ark in Space. It's a good mix of insider moments, observations and general dialogue.
Serial Thrillers Featurette: This is way cool. Featuring interviews with Hichcliffe, Robert Banks Stewart, Gareth Roberts, and others, the 30+ minute piece discusses the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era of Who, specifically focusing on seasons 13 & 14. Hinchcliffe and Holmes saw eye to eye on almost everything, and went about casting the right writer/director/cast/crew for each story, making sure that the strongest possible combination was used. The B-Movie horror genre conventions used during this time are analysed in various smart ways. One of the best featurettes ever done a Who disc.
Oh Mummy!: A spoof bit about Sutekh. Not very funny.
Loctations then and Now: A look at Stargroves back in 1975, comparing it to today.
Howard DiSilva Intros: a staple of every Tom Baker US DVD release so far, they're kind of fun, and something I remember from the very rare commercial broadcasts of Who when I was much younger.
Specific Pyramids Featurette: A 20 minute segment about the making of Pyramids itself, with Bernard Archer, Michael Sheard, Lis Sladen, Peter Copley, Philip Hinchcliffe and Paddy Russell talking about their own involvements. And on a personal note, Lis Sladen still looks great.
There are also the usual pictures and Who's Who segments. The Easter Egg features two minutes of audio continuity announcements from the BBC and a BBC 2 rebroadcast.
Overall, a very good DVD package, well worth picking up.
Old elements, new compound by Tim Roll-Pickering 26/8/02
It's amazing how even in the Hinchcliffe & Holmes 'era' which supposedly saw Doctor Who seeking to shake off the trappings of its past mythology there are still references to past companions, such as the Doctor recalling both Vicki and Victoria in the first TARDIS scene. Moreso this story takes us to the site of UNIT Headquarters, albeit many decades earlier in time when it was another building altogether. Pyramids of Mars is a story that manages to use the time travel elements successfully to make sense whilst at the same time delivering a strong tale that holds up in its own right.
The Egyptian elements of the story are straight out of Hammer but there's also elements from other sources as well, with the pre war country house setting being almost a clich?by now. Furthermore the idea of Sutekh as an ultimate force of evil (his alternate name of Satan is a clear give away) is not especially original but "Stephen Harris" produces a good script that manages to offer a fresh perspective on the matter. This story is almost a traditional 'isolated location under siege with everyone trapped inside and being picked off one by one' but somehow it manages to disguise itself from this being immediately obvious. Maybe it is the stunning location work which is completely reminiscent of a prestigious costume drama which does this or maybe it is because the script focuses on other matters but the result is a tale that never once feels like a rehash of elements from past Doctor Who stories.
The Egyptian mythology is wisely not used too extensively given that it has not entered the public conscious to the degree of the mythologies of Ancient Greece and Rome. Instead this story focuses on issues such as possession, the true threat inherent in any story set in the past and the Doctor's outlook on situations. On several occasions the Doctor stresses how he is not human and thus able to take a wider perspective, knowing what is the greatest task at hands. This leads to some good confrontations with Sarah that hold much promise for further development. As is often the case Baker and Sladen give strong performances. Of the guest cast Michael Sheard gives a strong performance as Lawrence Scarman, coming across as an Edwardian scientist whose world is thrown totally upside down, whilst Bernard Archard makes Marcus Scarman seem truly like an animated corpse with only a few traces of the man he once was remaining. The other characters have far smaller roles and Peter Mayock (Namin) puts in a performance that lets the side down somewhat.
Design wise there's little to fault the story, other than the scene in Part Two where the TARDIS briefly visits the alternate future which is poorly represented by a brief CSO shot. The direction is strong and there's a general feeling that everything is working together to complement one another. The result is a strong story that stands up well. 9/10
A Review by Will Berridge 24/5/03
Pyramids of Mars fits amongst the ranks of the "epic" stories; it is precisely the antidote to runarounds like Androids of Tara and The Creature from the Pit. Stories which have presented the Doctor battling against armageddon or all-powerful foes from the dawn of time have generally gone down well amongst DW fans: The Daemons, Logopolis, Curse of Fenric and of course Pyramids of Mars itself. One exception springs to mind, which is Peter Davison's attempt to explain (through a ridiculous plot device of ludicrously paradoxical proportions) in the cliffhanger to Episode 3 of Terminus, that if he can't hold a certain lever back, "the whole universe might be destroyed". Sorry Pete, you'll have to try a bit harder than that.
Anyway, this story manages to invoke a genuine sense of gravitas for several reasons. The most important is Tom Baker's performance. He is obviously feeling in a profound mood even before the adventure starts, given his "I walk in eternity" comment, and despite the fact the 4th incarnation tends to treat most of his adversaries as figures of fun, is obviously terrified of the threat Sutekh presents. By the time he gets to confront Sutekh, the Osirian tells him "abase yourself, you grovelling insect", which the 4th Doc wouldn't take from most villains. He responds, however, not with derision but abhorrence- "you're abominated on every civilised world". This effect also relies on the depiction of Sutekh to work, leaving the voice artist with a big job as all Sutekh really did was flash his eyes. Fortunately, with dialogue such as "It is within my power to choose the manner of your death. If I choose, I can leave you alive for centuries in excruciating pain." And with Gabriel Woolf's menacingly sibilant delivery, it does.
Another aspect is the depiction of the other characters, the Doctor's interaction with them, and their deaths. The writer manages to make almost every death scene count. Namin's is made shocking by (a) his initial reverence for Sutekh turning into horror as the figure he worships strikes him down (b) the grizzly sight of the smoke rising from the hands of Sutekh's pawn. The deaths of both Clements (a wandering poacher who is in all other respects utterly irrelevant to the plot) and Dr Warlock have a sense of tragic inevitability as both characters have been evading the mummies for about an episode till they finally get them. We knew they would, it is just wondering if it's going to be the scene you're watching that's exciting. (Actually, after quite a few viewings I now find Clement's "mummy sandwich" death rather comical. But it was scary the first few times.) Marcus Scarman is another. He spends most of the adventure as a "animated cadaver" the Doctor's told us to accept as dead, then right at the end when Sutekh destroys the Eye of Horus and releases his grip on him, he shout's "I'm free", escaping what we thought was an inevitable fate - only for his body to collapse into ashes and disappear. Finally, his brother, Lawrence, must be one of the most sympathetic characters created in DW. He initially experiences joy when the Doctor makes his wildest dreams come true by showing him into the TARDIS, and then desperation as he tries but fails to accept the fact that his brother is nothing more than a slave of Sutekh, even up to the point where he strangles him to death. The Doctor's treatment of him makes the pathos of his eventual death even more effective; he can't seem to understand why Lawrence won't accept his brother's dead when he's walking around, and gets angry with him when he doesn't. There's also one scene at the beginning of Episode 3 when the Doctor walks into the lodge and ignores him, and later on he brushes aside his corpse as if it was irrelevant. This all leads to "Oh, sometimes you don't often seem..." "Human?", and the Doctor's oft-quoted justification of his callousness, that millions more will die if Sutekh isn't stopped. It's just one of the few moments in DW you could describe as "momentous".
Other things that add to the grim atmosphere; well the organ music, rising to a crescendo at the summoning of Sutekh, just blows you away. The mummies rampaging around the woods in the first couple of episodes are a terrifying sight, even if the sense of awe is rather destroyed by episode three when the Doctor dismantles one and borrows its bandages.
It's a pity, then, that with this magnificent atmosphere having been created the story drags a little. Sutekh seems to be continually giving his pawn instructions about what sort of priority he should give to the construction of the rocket, to the extent that it seems to take an eternity being built. Almost all the scenes with Ernie Clements in are, in effect, padding. But given the tangible awe other elements of the story bring, maybe padding it out to capture the sense of fear for a little longer wasn't a particularly bad idea. In the final episode, the series of puzzles the Doctor and Sutekh have to make their way through, are, as the latter points out, a trivial diversion. And the ending's more that a little convenient. Incidentally, the Doctor didn't really have to save the universe in 2 minutes, he could have set the TARDIS to arrive on earth 10 minutes early if he wanted to. Even when facing the prospect of galactic obliteration he's a stickler for the rules.
None of these criticisms detract massively, however, from a very good story. 8.5/10
Complete Rubbish by Antony Tomlinson 29/5/03
I have very little time for Pyramids of Mars. It therefore amazes me that some people seem enamoured of this hackneyed old piece of drivel. I can only assume that they haven't had the misfortune to have actually watched it.
Before I point out exactly what I dislike about this story, I should acknowledge its good points. Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen are up to their usual standards, and Michael Sheard is quite good as the snivelling Laurence Scarman. There are also two good scenes - the 1980 wasteland scene, and the "you don't even seem..." "human?" scene. But that's about it.
So what do I dislike about Pyramids of Mars?
Well, the plot is a good place to start. This story grinds on for three episodes with the old "villain in prison who must be stopped from escaping" scenario, and then it turns to complete porridge for episode four, in which:
Then there's "the mighty Sutekh". He is not a great villain by any stretch of the imagination. For one, he's not particularly original. An alien being who can blow up planets is a fairly ordinary proposition for Doctor Who (and this one can't even concentrate on two things at once).
He isn't much fun to watch either - he can't move, for a start. At least Omega got to shake his fists about. Sutekh just sits there like an abandoned Darth Vader outfit, waiting be dusted down and put back in his cupboard. His dialogue is hardly awe-inspiring, either - it's just the usual B-movie ranting: "blah, blah, blah... destroyer of worlds... blah... die Doctor... blah, blah, blah..."
Then there are those mummies. Was anyone really scared of these lumbering toilet rolls as they staggered around at imperceptible speeds, vainly trying to kill people with their cleavage?
Perhaps the worst aspect of Pyramids of Mars, however, is the racial stereotypes - Namin and the Egyptian servants. All these Arab characters are portrayed as stupid, dishonourable, cowardly, superstitious and irrational (in contrast to the brave, gentlemanly British aristocrats, Dr Warlock and Marcus Scarman). By the mid-1970s, I would have thought that the BBC could have done better than this. Oh well.
So, in all, I have to say that Pyramids of Mars is little more than a series of clich? and pernicious stereotypes, loosely tied together in one of the most feeble plots in the series' history. So I doubt that I'll ever understand what anyone sees in this utter load of festering tripe.
One of the greats -- not only of Tom Baker's run, but all of Doctor Who by Michael Hickerson 15/8/03
In the history of every successful television show, there is that one episode where all the various elements of the show come together for a shining moment and you suddenly realize -- wow, this show is really, really good. In fact, the elements come together so well that not only does that story define the word classic for that series, but also for other series in comparison. It's a rare thing to find a story that transcends the series and the genre to be one of the truly great achievements in all of television.
For a show that ran for 26 years, Doctor Who has quite a few of these -- The Aztecs, Evil of the Daleks, The Daemons, Genesis of the Daleks, Caves of Androzani, Curse of Fenric.
Add to that list another great of Doctor Who history -- Pyramids of Mars.
To say that Pyramids of Mars is a good Doctor Who story is like saying the Mona Lisa is a good painting -- it's a massive understatement. No, Pyramids of Mars is one of those stories that transcends beyond what it means to be just a good Doctor Who story but instead presents us with what it means to be a great or even classic Doctor Who story.
Pyramids of Mars is that one story that when someone asks me to see an example of why I love Doctor Who so much I will unreservedly show them. Why?
Because it requires very little in the way of back story explanation, it's a cracking good story, it's got some nice performances all around and it's just mesmerizing to watch. I have shown this to non-Who fans many times over the years and they always come away with the same reaction, "Is it always that good and when can we see more?"
Alas, Pyramids is a pinnacle, but oh what a pinnacle it is.
Written by the greatest Who author of all time, Pyramids could have been a disaster before it saw the light of day. Rumor has it that Robert Holmes took the title and the setting of Egypt from a story that fell through and constructed this wonder of Doctor Who. After saving Ark in Space the season before, you might think Holmes couldn't work his magic again. But he does -- and in grand fashion. Say what you will about his lesser efforts (Power of Kroll, The Krotons), Robert Holmes was an absolute genius when it came to writing Doctor Who. The man just understood what it was that made this show tick and it shows up time and again in his stories. Even his worst stories always have something to recommend about them (not something you can say about, say, any offering from Pip and Jan Baker).
Fortunately for us, Pyramids is one of his best stories.
Holmes crams in a whole lot of back story and exposition and does it in a creative way. Yes, we have scenes of the Doctor spouting off back story on Horus, Sutkeh and the rest of the Osirians, but it's well done. It shows us just how much of a lethal force Sutekh is and it shows us why the Doctor is so desparate to stop him. As if that weren't enough, Holmes shows us what would happen if Sutkeh wins -- by taking us forward in time to 1980 and seeing the bleak, ravaged world Sutkeh would leave behind. It's one of the most chilling and well done moments in all of Doctor Who.
The story itself is farily simply -- the ancient evil Sutekh has a chance to free himself and bring about some death and destruction. The Doctor is the only thing that stands in his way and its a race against time to stop Sutkeh getting free. Add to it the requisite homage to the Hammer horror movies with robotic mummies, possessed men, an invisible forcefiel and a whole lot of extras to be canon fodder and you've got the elements of a good Who story. But what makes it so great is the little things and getting those right -- and Pyramids of Mars gets them all right.
Yes, the cast isn't quite as well-drawn as the Holmes characters in Caves of Androzani, but they don't need to be. We get some real depth to the brotherly relationship of the Scarman brothers and I actually feel as though Dr. Lawrence is a concerned friend of the brothers. Also, while the Egyptian living in Scarman's house is a bit of a stereotype, he is at least a bit more than the usual possessed alien baddy. He fervently believes what he is doing is right and in the service of a more powerful being. His shooting people and harassing the butler are just means to his end -- to bring the second reign of Sutkeh upon the universe.
Then, you've got Sutkeh, who for a baddie who pretty much sits around pulling strings for three and a quarter episodes is shockingly chilling and effective. Seeing him project his will across time and space is pretty impressive and I will be the first to admit the first time I saw this one, I felt sure the Doctor had lost the day. (And yes, I was excited to see the doors open to reveal the TARDIS).
The performances are all around great. Garbiel Woolfe steals the show even though he's restricted to using only his voice to give Sutkeh any type of emotion or motivation. Tom Baker is superb as Doctor -- bringing a real sense of alienness to the Time Lord and possibly fear that his plans might not work and he just might fail. Seeing each of the Doctor's plans go just enough awry so that he's forced to sacrifice himself to distract Sutkeh is nicely done as is the dark air we see over him in the entire story. The Doctor's lack of patience with Lawrence Scarman is particularly interesting as is his testiness with Sarah Jane.
The story is also a visual wonder. It's a rather limited story -- taking place only on the estate grounds and the pyramid on mars, but yet it feels more epic. Part of this is that the usual corridors to run up and down are replaced by outdoor chases, which are a nice change of pace. Also, the entire story feels right -- from the look of the interior of the houses to the robot mummies to Sutkeh himself. The visual marvels here are nicely done and show that you can do great things on a Doctor Who budget. Sure, it's not Star Wars, but it's still very impressive all these years later. (And I have to admit the steam rising from the feet of Sutkeh's servants when they step out is a superb touch of genius as is the gruesome death that is dealt out).
No matter how you look at it, Pyramids is great Who. It's a story to be savored and enjoyed. It shows you how great Doctor Who can be and it always leaves me with a good feeling about Doctor Who as a series. It's one of the most popular of the entire Who canon -- and each time I watch it, I always see why.
A Review by Rob Matthews 28/10/03
Our Mr TK made a remark in a recent review of The Pirate Planet which seems as good a jumping-off point as any for my thoughts on Pyramids of Mars: he claimed, incidentally, that the story was not 'serious' Who. Scrolling up a bit, I noticed Joey Ford had said the same thing. This wasn't meant as criticism of The Pirate Planet - far from it, both reviews were positive ones, but nevertheless I thought that in saying that the fellas were inadvertently doing the serial down. Certainly it's not a serious story if your criteria for 'seriousness' is measured by the extent to which a story is po-faced or up itself. But in my opinion Pirate Planet is a serial doesn't which stint on twisty plotting, which treats its own world(s) as real and everything that happens there as having consequences, which gives its villainous characters solid reasons for everything they do, and has a stong morality play element. It is, in other words, as serious a Doctor Who story as any other. With the added, delightful bonus that it's a hell of a lot more fun than most of them.
And, speaking personally, I find that story - chosen more or less at random - a lot more worthy of my time than Pyramids of Mars. The same could just as well be said of Day of the Daleks (check out Daniel Clarke's review), or Frontios, or Full Circle, or Ambassadors of Death, or The Time Warrior, or The Ark in Space, or The Ribos Operation, or The Horns of Nimon - all stories I mention because though in my opinion superior they're not generally bandied about in the same breath as what is essentially The One With The Mummies.
Sometimes it's an enlightening exercise to ponder for a bit over why it is you really like Doctor Who - over what, for you, makes a successful story. I say this because there's a strong tendency in fandom to hail as 'classics' the stories that most frightened us when we were ten years old. Hence, in my opinion, the popularity of a comparatively insubstantial offering like Pyramids of Mars.
'Doctor Who was made for ten year-olds!' would, I suppose, be the counter-argument here, but that's not entirely true, since the show was always intended as 'family' viewing, and certainly by the seventies adult viewers made up a major share of the audience. Besides which, if I thought Doctor Who was nothing more than a superior creepshow for kids I wouldn't care enough to write stuff like this about it. That 'behind the sofa' thing has never really hit home with me.
So what do I reckon makes a successful story?
Well, lots of different things obviously. I guess you have to look at the stories you like and then decide what it is you like about them. With the example of The Pirate Planet - and as with all the superior Graham Williams stuff - it's the attention given to the motives of the bad guys. Me, I hate selfishness and lack of consideration for others. You encounter it every day and in one way or another it's at the root of every human-created problem there is. Yet I understand selfishness because it's a basic part of the human condition. So for me a selfish Doctor Who villain is always a believable and engaging one, yet one who I can on some shameful level relate to - Xanxia in The Pirate Planet crushes whole worlds as part of her beauty regime, Soldeed in Nimon is duped because of his self-aggrandising onanistic 'dreeeams of conquest', Scaroth is willing to wipe out mankind's entire history just to get his head together. It's all me, me, me with these people. They ignore all the unspoken social contracts and look out purely for themselves. It's this very selfishness that makes them bad guys, not some abstract dedication to evil. Thus these serials IMO have an intelligent and developed sense of morality that's highly commendable in a show which had a sizeable kiddie audience. The Doctor and Romana are heroes precisely because of their delightfully casual selflessness, and so set a very worthwhile example. I always regard the Doctor's blithe 'Ah well, because I just don't do that sort of thing' in Meglos, yes Meglos, as one of the really great moments of the series. It's so pure and simple a response to Jackie Hill's lofty sneering, and yet such a wonderful statement of what's been referred to as the 'fundamental sanity' of the Doc.
I think that's probably it in a nutshell; with occasional exceptions the stories I consider 'classics' are the ones that in some way, no matter how quietly, are about people, and how they relate to each other. I'm not talking Oprah Winfrey territory here, and as usual with these reviews of mine, what seemed quite clear in my head when I was having a shave one morning seems a bit pretentious written down, but nevertheless - the point is that Doctor Who as Effect rarely works for me. Sparse, visceral horror with little or no attention to character or plotting can be highly effective - witness The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (er, the real one, haven't seen the pointless remake)-, but horror in Doctor Who is always of necessity horror-lite, and leaves the twenty-five year-old me nonplussed.
And Pyramids of Mars is, for the most part, just that; horror-lite, a starter pack of schlock for kiddies. It's about creepy foreigners and malevolent yet unmotivated forces of evil. And effects - you know, thrills, shudders. Mummies creaking out of sarcophagi, pasty white walking corpses sucking it up after they get shot, creepy dissonant music as Sutekh hisses away about bringing dust and darkness to the universe. It isn't that it's devoid of entertainment value, it's not, but for the most part that entertainment is the sort you get from cheesy old seventies horror flicks with Stephanie Beacham and her ilk. Daft pulpy stuff. And I feel that to say this is the best Doctor Who has to offer is to do Doctor Who an enormous disservice. This isn't even the best Robert Holmes has to offer.
I've indicated that I'm not all that well-disposed towards Doctor Who stories about all-powerful thingies abstractly dedicated to Eeevil, but that's not to suggest they can't work. To take the most obvious example, I think Curse of Fenric is successful because the strength of the support cast, in terms of both scripting and acting, is exceptional for televised Who. But even there I always feel Fenric is more symbol than protagonist, and wouldn't work at all if the human drama were not the crux of the serial. Or take The Seeds of Doom. That serial's monster, though not a self-proclaimed force of Evil, nevertheless translates in human terms as a faceless and terrifyingly powerful malignity. And translates in generic terms as B-movie schlock. But neither of these things are what make the serial a 'classic'. It's not horror, neither is it Camp (the unfortunate fate of failed horror); What makes it a great piece of television is the characters and how they react to their situation. I don't think it's about evil evil vegetables. I think it's about the Doctor, Sarah, Scorby and Ducat.
For me, Pyramids is too spartan, doesn't have enough of any one ingredient: The horror, as I've said, is junior horror and hardly ample reason for an adult to like it (barring nostalgia, of course). The plotting itself is competent, though hardly exceptional, and gets a bit sloppy by the end - as Antony Tomlinson has already, through a mouthful of froth, elucidated :-) . All that match-the-shapes, 'If-I'm-lying-am-I-therefore-telling-the-truth' nonsense is indeed a rather poor way of keeping intruders out of the Pyramid of Mars (What's the main entrance activated by? A cryptic crossword? A Rubik's cube?), and the sudden use of some gadget out of the TARDIS to solve everything can be charitably described as uninspired.
And what of the characters?
Well, sadly - and surprisingly from Holmes - there aren't any of interest. There's a lot of conviction in Sutekh's vocal performance, I'll give him that; creepily underplayed rather than cackling and loud, he's making the most of this material. But he's still a one-dimensional force of evil-type. IMHO that sort of villain should be treated as a superior cipher; villainous, chilling, terrifying, yes, if you can write him and perform him that good, that's fine. But bear in mind that he's still just a cipher and don't make the mistake of making a stultifying banality the centrepiece of your story. For me Pyramids of Mars can't be called a classic because it's too much up its own MacGuffin.
Of the good guys Warlock is - well, he's just there. Upper class chap, not that objectionable, not interesting either. The only other character of any note besides the regulars is Lawrence Scarman, the poor little oik who can't accept that his brother's dead. He's well-acted and you feel sympathy for him, there's even some passing attempt at lip service to a theme of brotherhood - Sutekh & Horus, Marcus & Lawrence -, but all on his own here with no-one to play off (the way Jago played off Casey and Litefoot, Irongron off of Linx etc), he's just a third wheel to the Doctor and Sarah, in fact much of the time he's in their way. Ho hum.
You know what Tom Baker story I think is Pyramids of Mars done right? Or very nearly right at any rate...
Horror of Fang Rock. That too has a bunch of Edwardians trapped in an enclosed space with a dangerous monster. But that has a varied, contrasting tableau of characters to make it engaging - not just a couple of well-mannered old buggers. Okay, it has a shit-looking monster and it would have been nice had the Rutan been done better. But if all you're into about Who is the quality of the monster's appearance we probably don't talk the same language anyway.
What Pyramids of Mars does have in abundance is the Doctor and Sarah. Now that's the biggest strength of this serial by far: Indeed, the story may well be the best showcase in the series of the Doctor/Sarah relationship. Every scene they're in together you can feel the affection between them. In fact, dare I say this, when Tom's acting hypnotised in ep 4 his performance is pretty dreadful. A rare occurence for Big Tommy B, but there it is. And it's actually Sarah's heartbreaking sob of 'No' that makes us feel something really bad is going down.
Plus there's all those good lines like 'Your shoes need repairing', 'Perhaps he sneezed', 'Oh, I knooow you're a Time Lord' that make Tom and Lis a total pleasure to watch throughout. And there's a brilliant, defining statement of just who the Doctor is in that opening scene. But I think it's because they're so good that you're suckered into thinking you're watching something better than this actually is.
Well, that's my two cents anyway. Pyramids of Mars is not terrible, but I hope I've managed to get across here why I don't think it's that good either.
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 25/11/03
Pyramids Of Mars is arguably one of the strongest stories of the Tom Baker era and possibly of the entire series. Everything works in its favour from a powerful script, featuring animated cadavers, mummies not too dissimilar to the Cybermen at their best. Add to this strong cliffhangers, an amoral enemy superbly played, a stellar guest cast, with even small roles like Archie Clements coming across well, great location work and an intense performance from Tom Baker, bringing the Doctor`s alien and dark side to the fore. There is only one tiny gripe I have with the plot and that is why Sutekh couldn`t have carried out his plans from Egypt instead of England, but this doesn`t detract from a first rate story.
Spitting out my coffee... by Joe Ford 8/12/03
Rob mate, love ya but I have to disagree. You see fellow reviewers you will find much of interest in a Rob Matthews review even if you don't agree with him. I always enjoy them because he manages to see Doctor Who as a whole and finds interesting parallels and things to say about stories, especially the books. But I spat coffee all over my laptop when I read his review of Pyramids of Mars which he slotted firmly in the almost good, certainly no classic bracket, when I find it one of the most stylish, intense and thoughtful stories in the show's canon. It would certainly turn up on my top ten.
More than any other I can think of, Pyramids of Mars is about death. Robert Holmes has always said he wanted to scare the kids that were watching and with this story he has proven that no-one could do it better. Death is frightening concept and encapsulated perfectly in the character of Sutekh, who wants nothing more than to destroy everything he touches. Shockingly it isn't the celebrated moments that impress (or scare) me but those moments that remind you of your own mortality, how you could be here one second and gone the next. As the victims pile up so does the twisted manner of their death. Collins the butler is murdered from behind, a terrifying concept, not even knowing that death is approaching. Namin is killed because of his faith in death (Sutekh), his murderous actions paid in kind as a black robed messenger of death leans down and takes his life now his role is over. Warlock is faced with an unspeakable horror (the mummies) and betrayed by his old friend who orders his death. That is damn scary! But worst of all is dear old Lawrence Scarman who spends the story pining after his brother. When his animated corpse comes to visit Lawrence refuses to believe Marcus is dead and is proven horribly wrong when his brother takes his life. All these moments, acted with pure conviction, terrify the hell out of me and keep me glued to the screen in trembling terror.
For Rob Matthews to coin Pyramids of Mars 'daft, pulpy stuff' is to do it a grave disservice. To compare it to the cheesy horror movies of the seventies is horrifying, I have yet to see a B-movie that comes anywhere close to as compelling as this story. There are very, very few Doctor Who stories that are realised with such style. The story looks gorgeous, far, far better than City of Death and The Two Doctors which are probably its closest companions in the style stakes, simply because this is plugged as a regular Doctor Who story, a solid four parter in the middle of a terrific season. Paddy Russell would easily breach the top ten directors list because she knew how to get her point across without the tricks of Lovett Bickford, the frenzy of Graeme Harper or the discipline of Douglas Camfield (as brilliant as they all are).
The story transcends its B-movie roots thanks to Russell's detail, just take a peek at her location work in the dense, leafy woodland. If you enter these woods you will be killed she manages to say without anyone actually saying it. The sequences of Ernie Clements the luckless poacher are terrifying, the mummies aren't especially fast but they are relentless. They never stop coming until they get you and shots like Ernie stopping for a breath by a gnarled oak with the two mummies positioned in shot atop the incline, like silent statues, then suddenly lurching to life as he reveals himself are terrifying. Even scarier is the shot of Ernie running at an incredible pace with the mummies closing on him close behind, bleached in sunlight their sudden capture of their prey gives me goosebumps. Russell has an incredible eye for visuals, capturing the story's intensity with the cameras, the slow pan across the woods with Namin, gun trained, across to the Doctor and Warlock hiding under a tree stump and across again to the mummy looming over their hidey-hole fizzes with tension despite the lack of dialogue and movement from the actors.
Ahh the actors. You know one of the most celebrated complaints about those cheesy seventies horror movies is the miserably bad performances. Have you ever seen Evil Dead? Sheer drivel, shockingly violent and gory and loaded with dire performances (the women screaming mostly and the men waving around chain saws to prove their manhood). Pyramids of Mars is packed with absorbing performances, proper actors that seem to relish the opportunities Holmes' dense script provides them. This is clearly Michael Sheard's best performance in the show (although Castrovalva comes close), he gives his all to make Lawrence as tragic as possible. He is a sterling British gentleman in every respect, well dressed, decisive ("In view of what you've told me I'm going to call the police!") and helpful. His exploration of the TARDIS is a joy because it reminds us of our first glimpse at the wondrous box, sheer, unadulterated pleasure ("Its preposterous!" he grins!). The joy of this character (and Sheard's interpretation) is his quiet attempts to keep up with the complexities ("Fascinating, are you saying the future can be changed?") the story throws up and yet remains firmly loyal to his brother despite all the proof that he is dead ("I can't believe that my brother... he and Dr Warlock were the closest of friends..."). This is why the cliffhanger to episode two is so brilliant, not because of the mummies finally catching up with the Doctor but because Lawrence proves where his loyalties lie by sabotaging the Doctor's plan ("I was thinking of my brother!").
Bernard Archer is buried under so much make-up, the only less than subtle aspect of the story and yet he still manages to exude a cold menace. It could be because he spends the story calmly walking from scene to scene with his terrifying mummy companions and killing people without any reaction at all, not even a satisfied smile. Or it could be how he only looks mildly inconvenienced when a bullet opens up his back. The fact that he is so quietly haunting throughout leaves his most shocking scene, killing his brother, so disturbing because he finally loses his temper and lashes out, proving his love for Sutekh.
Season thirteen sees Tom Baker at his most compelling, darker than ever. You never once doubt this man is an alien such are his disturbing reactions to events. Several moments during Pyramids of Mars are seminal Tom, as important as his loony rant in The Pirate Planet and his zany humour in City of Death. It is worth noting how little time the Doctor has for the incidental characters in this story, his shocking non reaction to Lawrence's death and his seething justification of it are extremely powerful. Confronting Sutekh in his tomb we get to see the Doctor at his heroic best, walking into a death trap to stop this dark God obtaining his freedom. "Then I abase you Sutekh... you are a twisted abhorrance!" ...brilliant stuff and all the better for Tom's bitter delivery.
This is why his scenes with Sarah are such magic as Rob points out. There is an unspoken warmth between them, him the desperate Time Lord attempting to bring down something "even more powerful than anything even I have ever encountered" and her the inquisitive journalist ("You mean Sutekh is still alive?"). All the quoted scenes are genius because they are the only moments of intimacy in and otherwise bleak story ("Your shoes need repairing", "Don't be so pedantic at a time like this!"). They are made for each other, Sarah proving more resourceful than usual (looking ultra cool holding that rifle!) and able to drag out that cheeky smile of the Doctor's despite all his brooding.
Lis Sladen looks a million dollars in her Victorian dress and glows in a story that gives her loads of cool things to do and say. People point at Pyramids of Mars as the ultimate companion story because she gets to do everything a companion should. Sarah cracks jokes, runs from the monsters, asks the right questions ("You mean die?"), screams, proves extremely useful (dressing the Doctor up, calling off the mummies, firing the pistol), highlights the Doctor's strengths ("We've got to go back") and weaknesses ("Sometimes you don't seem... human!"). She is pivotal to the story's success and Lis is utterly divine in every scene.
Robert Holmes writes a script that is riddled with plot holes (yep you've heard them all before so I won't rehash them) but I don't care, for he has also written four episodes with cracking dialogue, amazing cliffhangers, loads of exciting bits, a near perfect villain and lots and lots of scary deaths! To be honest the story is so amazingly constructed to entertain and frighten the plot holes hardly surface.
Stultifyingly banal... Sutekh? Was Rob watching the same story as me? Sutekh is the perfect metaphor for all the horror in the world. All the death, rape, cheats, liars... everything that is evil is captured in this terrifying creation. Sutekh lays his cards on the table, he has no redeemable features ("Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness... I find that good") and if released you have no doubt he will live up to his claims. Gabriel Woolf delivers a stunning vocal performance somehow capturing all the horror of Holmes' script and magnifying it tenfold. The mask is damn creepy in itself but it is all the silky malevolence in his voice that freezes me up. The Doctor and Sutekh, opposites in all ways with the Osiran encapsulating everything the Time Lord is vowed to fight against taken to such an extreme it is easy to claim Sutekh as the ultimate Doctor Who villain.
And the script is just incredible, Holmes always had a penchant for dazzling dialogue but never more so than his gothic period where every character has something magical to say. "Deactivating a generator loop without the correct key is like repairing a watch with a hammer and chisel... one false move and you will never know the time again." "All life is my enemy. All life will perish under the reign of Sutekh the Destroyer." "Murdering swine!" "Die, I bring Sutekh's gift of death to all humans." "Perhaps he sneezed?" "We don't want to blamed for starting a fire... got enough of that in 1066!" The story thrives on strong, believable, instantly quotable dialogue such as these few examples.
To complete the story and seal it in a box labelled classic is Dudley Simpson's incredible music. City of Death is his other great score but Pyramids gives him more to do and instead of rattling out the usual instrumental chaos he manages to capture the atmosphere perfectly and several of his stings are memorably scary. Ernie Clements' delayed death chase is Simpson at his height, pacey, dramatic and scary. His dark, ethereal score for Sutekh is similarly creepy. He uses simple instruments (the shaker during Sarah's near encounter with the mummies in the woods) to great effect.
Nope I find Pyramids of Mars infinitely preferable to The Pirate Planet Rob (and you know how much I love season sixteen). It looks better (better director), sounds better (Dudley Simpson before he ran out of ideas), is better written (Adams is no Holmes, he is a great writer but who is as good as Holmes?) and it holds together with much more style. Despite its plethora of wacky and fascinating ideas The Pirate Planet is still deeply embarrassing in places. Pyramids of Mars is perhaps the most audience friendly Doctor Who story with some genuinely visceral horror. And despite its superb dramatic moment at the end of part two The Pirate Planet cannot match this story for sheer dramatic (and emotional!) power. Plus this doesn't have Mary Tamm, an instant bonus.
Pyramids of Mars is the perfect way to convert fans, I should know, it has succeeded with me five times! It is a precious thing indeed, every area from production to acting and writing excelling.
And it's shit your pants scary too.
A Review by Brian May 3/3/04
Pyramids of Mars is one of the earliest Doctor Who stories I saw, and it left a lasting impression which remains to this day. It is an excellently written, acted and directed piece of television. It could possibly be one of the series' best stories ever. It's certainly a fine legacy of the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes era. It epitomises all they brought to the show - unashamed steals from film genres, stabs of outright horror, combined with high production values. Just about every element of Pyramids is a success, making this one of those style and substance tales.
Hinchcliffe and Holmes make it clear where they are veering the show at this point - the Doctor's excellent speech in the TARDIS about walking in eternity is perhaps the most forthright expression of their philosophy - the UNIT days are (virtually) over, Tom Baker is a more alien Doctor and the wandering through time and space has resumed. Although the previous season's series of adventures from The Ark in Space to Revenge of the Cybermen was the programme's longest foray away from 20th century Earth for a few years, it's this moment that the return to cosmic travel is effectively "announced" to the viewing public.
It's ironically appropriate that the bulk of this story's action takes place on the premises that would become UNIT headquarters in the future. After the tone is set for the paramilitary organisation's fading out (indeed, it would only appear in two more stories in the 1970s) we land right inside the building it used to be! Of course, I may be exceedingly dim and this is some sort of message from Mssrs Holmes & Hinchcliffe about change, the same, etc etc. On the other hand, it could all be just a coincidence.
Anyway, enough of that. This adventure sparkles in many ways. First of all, there's the atmosphere. There's an underlying fatalism and grim tone throughout, perhaps because Sutekh is given a real sense of omniscience and is not just some second-rate villain. Gabriel Woolf's character oozes menace and, especially in part four when he holds the Doctor prisoner, really seems a match for the Time Lord. There are many small moments that also emphasise this: the murders of Warlock and Laurence Scarman - the latter of which is a particularly disturbing scene - the Mummies chasing the poacher through the woods only to catch up with him and, likewise, condemn him to a horrible death. Then there's the scene when Marcus Scarman is shot and simply absorbs the bullet and the explosion (a rather neat effect, no matter how simple) and the truly amazing few minutes when the TARDIS arrives in a barren, desolate 1980. It really feels as though the Doctor and Sarah have their work cut out for them.
The story isn't quite horror, although it has some moments which fall into this category. The face that appears to look at Sarah in the TARDIS in part one is very freakish - another of those scenes that haunted me as a child. Likewise Sutekh's jackal head appearing over Scarman's face as the latter stands in front of the Eye of Horus.
Many elements of the production contribute to the story's success. The special sounds and music are two such factors - the first shot of the TARDIS travelling through space is accompanied by a creepy noise that, from the outset, says "There's something wrong." The organ music unnerves, while Dudley Simpson's score appropriately serves the images and mood. Paddy Russell's direction is first rate, as is the photography. Pyramids of Mars contains some wonderful shots - the camera particularly likes Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. The scene in part one when they make their way along the edge of the house, keeping below the windows while the image zooms further out until the priory is seen in full, is wonderful (as is the accompanying music). The Doctor and Sarah moving through the woods as they search for the barrier is also noteworthy, Sarah's white dress flowing in the wind adding a romantic (in the literary sense of the word) feel. The Egyptian theme largely precludes this tale from being what you would call Gothic, but the wooded countryside location at least draws upon the atmosphere of Ann Radcliffe and the like.
All the acting is superb, with special mention going to Bernard Archard, Michael Sheard and Gabriel Woolf. As I mentioned before, Woolf is splendidly menacing, the fact that he must convey this entirely through his voice is a testament to the actor's talent. Elisabeth Sladen is, as ever, terrific. I know it's terribly convenient that she puts on a period dress just before landing in 1911, but she looks wonderful in it! Tom Baker is well and truly an alien Doctor in this story - there's his apparently callous delivery and indifferent response when he informs Laurence that his brother "no longer exists" as a human. The Time Lord simply goes back to his work, leaving it up to Sarah to comfort the shattered man. There's also the Doctor's harsh "You don't deserve to be" when asking Laurence if he's all right. His dispassionate response to the man's death leaves for the great "Sometimes you don't seem.." "Human?" exchange with Sarah, which then allows the Doctor to prove that, beneath the alien detachment, he really is concerned - when his companion tells him "A man has just been murdered!" the Doctor sombrely replies with "Four men - five, if you include Professor Scarman himself."
Another great moment for Tom Baker is the Doctor's confrontation with Sutekh in the final episode. As I mentioned before, the Doctor is particularly vulnerable here - especially so for his fourth incarnation, who tended to survive on a sense of humour. Here he plays it straight, accordingly so to reflect the nature of his enemy.
And, in a rare case for Doctor Who, the final episode is actually quite satisfying. True, the series of obstacles the Doctor and Sarah face on Mars are variations of well-known puzzles and riddles, but they are pulled off with some panache. These scenes actually lighten up the story; while the race against time is still there, the forlorn, desolate feel of the previous three and a half episodes is lifted, which is quite a relief actually. And by the way, the story isn't spoiled by the hand on the cushion that's visible as Sutekh rises. I didn't even notice it until I read The Discontinuity Guide anyway.
If you want to realise how excellent Doctor Who can be, with Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe at the height of their powers, then watch Pyramids of Mars. 9.5/10
A Review by Finn Clark 30/5/06
Mummies are slightly unusual movie monsters. There are legends of vampires, werewolves and the like in almost every human culture, while even something as specific as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein addresses fundamental themes that horror movies will always want to explore. Mummy films however are almost a historical accident. In 1922 Lord Carnarvon opened King Tutankhamun's tomb and started a worldwide wave of Egyptomania, which was fuelled further by the "Curse of the Pharoahs" as several members of his team died over the next ten years. These were Hollywood's early years and ancient Egypt looks great on film... hence mummy movies.
There's a specificity about mummies that you don't get with other classic monsters. You can put Dracula and Frankenstein anywhere, but mummies are rooted in the exoticism and immortality-obsession of ancient Egypt. (Forget the mummies of South America and other such places. Apparently no one cares about them.) Because of all this, Pyramids of Mars part one is perhaps the most literal recreation of Hammer horror ever in Doctor Who. You'd hardly need to change a thing to turn it into a straight mummy movie. Even The Brain of Morbius or State of Decay set their horror pastiches on alien planets, but here we have all the imagery complete with an English 1911 setting. They've even set it in the traditional historical period, while significantly for once there's no attempt to recreate the iconic monsters on anything but the most superficial level. They're robots in bandages, not walking corpses. If you want that, look at Scarman or even Sutekh himself.
They're still great monsters, though admittedly this was a fantastic monster era. Of all the disappointments of the Graham Williams era, one of the greatest is that budget constraints took us from the Hinchcliffe era's parade of luscious monster designs into a world of killer prawns, dubious tentacles and Taran Beasts.
Of course there's Sutekh himself, for whom no praise is too high. Robert Holmes is rightly acclaimed for many things, but I don't think he gets enough credit for his villains. He's created some of Doctor Who's most chilling psychopaths (The Ribos Operation, The Caves of Androzani), while here he also does that Holmesian thing of writing debates of morals and ethics, directly counterpointing the Doctor's philosophy with the villain's. It happens a lot in this era (Davros, Morbius, Sutekh) and also in later Holmes stories (Caves of Androzani, The Two Doctors, The Mysterious Planet). Together with Gabriel Woolf's amazing voice, the results are wonderful.
There's one odd detail, though. Apparently the Osirans "had dome-shaped heads and cereberums like spiral staircases." Huh? Sutekh has a jackal head, not a dome. Either the Doctor's talking out of his arse again or else Sutekh shrivelled up over the last seven millennia. Well, he is practically a living mummy.
While I'm on the subject of Robert Holmes, incidentally, see how carefully he does his groundwork. Even Sarah's "I'm from 1980" is foreshadowed in episode one. He's giving the audience everything they need, not assuming a thing, and doing it so slickly that you don't even notice. The craftsmanship in these scripts is amazing, with great and sometimes even sinister cliffhangers and one of Doctor Who's all-time heaviest villains. For once the baddie's killing simply because he likes to, rather than in furtherance of any plan. Okay, yes, he wants to get free. Nevertheless that's incidental to his basic motivation: the destruction of all life.
The ending deserves particular praise. Having established Sutekh as an unstoppable force of nature, the Doctor was going to have to do something particularly clever to defeat him. Fortunately he did. The script's solution is imaginative and convincing. The radio waves twist is ingenious and based in real science, while moving the time corridor into the future is a clear, straightforward idea instead of a mess of technobabble or "I'll explain later". Compare with the end of The Daemons or Ghost Light, for instance. One can find unanswered questions if you look hard enough, such as why two minutes should matter so much since the Doctor's going back by TARDIS anyway, or why Sutekh travels down his time-space corridor instead of opening the door of his tomb and stepping outside in Egypt. However it's not hard to explain them away.
This is incidentally one of those stories where the best reading of a scene is that the Doctor's bluffing the bad guy. Others include The Brain of Morbius (the pre-Hartnell faces) and Resurrection of the Daleks (no Leela). Here after pushing his luck so far that one might almost think he'd been deliberately testing him, the Doctor convinces Sutekh that the TARDIS controls are isomorphic (huh?) and then later that he's dead after a mere two seconds' worth of strangulation. The latter in particular would have been biologically absurd even had the Doctor been human. Perhaps the robot was about to physically crush his windpipe instead of merely cutting off the air supply? The script throws in a line about a respiratory bypass system (see also The Robots of Death), but it's not really needed. One thing I dislike about the Hinchcliffe era is its glib invention of superpowers and shit whenever they felt like it (pre-Hartnell incarnations, temporal grace, respiratory bypass system, isomorphic controls, etc.) which would either inconvenience later production teams or just be flat-out ignored.
Perhaps not unrelated to my previous point is the fact that Sutekh doesn't seem to like to overstretch himself. He doesn't directly dominate Marcus Scarman and the robots, but instead allows them autonomy and requires verbal reports. Admittedly Marcus says "I am Sutekh" to his brother Lawrence and "I'm free, free at last" after destroying the Eye of Horus, but I think it's more like being infected with Sutekh's mentality. He's not a zombie. He can make suggestions with which his master disagrees. Sutekh even prefers to communicate via the sarcophagus, although when that's impossible on Mars he's perfectly capable of telepathy.
The actors give it their all. Tom Baker is impressive, doing a great job in episode three for instance of being horrified by cardboard boxes and Egyptian mantelpiece ornaments. He snarls at Sarah, he snaps at Lawrence and he gives us what we need for Doctor Who's all-time greatest "how on Earth will he get out of that?" cliffhanger. Over the years we've had some cliffhangers that were visually spectacular and others that were cheesy, but very few make you fear for the Doctor's safety as this does. We've spent three episodes building up Sutekh as practically the Whoniverse's Satan, striving to end his millennia of captivity and annihilate all life, whereupon the Doctor walks into his tomb and causes his precious rocket to explode. Sutekh's eyes glow green, the Doctor screams and... roll credits.
I like the traps on Mars, even that hoary old lie-or-truth chestnut. At least Tom doesn't think about it too hard or try to pretend that it's an unknown and fiendish conundrum. However I was fascinated by his exact words: "If I were to ask your fellow Guardian the question, which switch would he indicate?" Eh? Whassat? When he says "the question", is that the death switch or the life switch? The Doctor's playing games with Sarah's life! Nevertheless he still gets the right answer, so perhaps he's seen some subtle clue that's invisible to the viewers at home. Either the Doctor's lost his marbles or he's playing a game within a game to make things more interesting. Since it's Tom Baker, I could believe either explanation.
Pyramids of Mars is a terrific story. Its plotting isn't intricate, but the craft underlying that script is cleverer than you'd think. Robert Holmes simply makes it look easy. The production is similarly wonderful, with lovely period recreation and a Marconiscope that's practically steampunk. Even the music is what Dudley Simpson was born to write. It's impressively faithful to its source material, although admittedly that's not hard since mummy movies are such a nebulous genre to begin with. Bandages and sarcophagi, that's all. They're just the result of someone thinking Egyptology looked cool on screen, which is true. This may not be a deep story about the human condition, but it's not trying to be. Despite its reputation, I think it's almost underrated.
A Review by Alan Morrison 3/7/06
Pyramids of Mars is not only one of the most immaculately executed dramas in the Doctor Who canon, but also in the history of British television. It is in its rich authenticity of costume and set-design, a pinnacled slice from the exceptional period drama standards of 1970s' TV. From the crushed velvet suit of the fez-hatted Egyptian interloper Namin, right down to the worn wood-tiled floor of the gothic folly itself, Pyramids is visually exemplary. The house in which the majority of the story is situated is for me the most convincing studio replication of an Edwardian era house that I have witnessed on television (and I've seen a lot of other examples being an avid collector of BBC costume dramas). Perhaps the quite stunning costumes and set designs by Barbara Kidd help to conjure what is also a compellingly authentic period atmosphere which simply reeks of old wood and book dust. The principal characters too have the convincing bearings and manners of people from the past, lending a greater credibility to this story's historical evocation. During the Hinchcliffe era the casting directors seemed to have a genuine instinct for historical faces (the epitome of which has to be Christopher Benjamin's long-faced Victorian physiognymy as Henry Gordon Jago in Talons of Weng-Chiang (bearing a passing, more flushed resemblance to the late Nigel Zulu Green); Bernard Archard as Marcus Scarman is perfectly cast as a vampirically pallid zombie still replete with creased white sun-jacket as he maunders about the folly in a genuinely disturbing detachment, with corpse-white waxy face, red-rimmed eyes and markedly protruding eyebrows. The dehumanized face of Scarman is still to this day one of the most chilling images in the series' canon.
But for me the most outstanding central performance in this story is Gabriel Woolf's black-masked Sutekh: in his chilling crispness of tone, this oral depiction of pure evil is the most convincingly played of any of Doctor Who's villains and comes near to rivaling even the immortal dark chocolate tones of Tom Baker himself. Holmes's script reaches a glorious crescendo with Sutekh's line to the Doctor: "You're just a termite. Abase yourself you groveling insect." The Doctor's "You're a twisted abhorrence" comes a close second.
As for Tom Baker's performance, well, this has to be the most definitive one he ever made in his lengthy tenure, and that's saying something (Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks and Terror of the Zygons coming very close). His first scene as he lifts his glowering eyes from beneath that inimitable floppy-brimmed hat of his early seasons, speaks volumes for the time-fatigued central character, more than any other portrayal before or since. His later speech, in the same scene, made all the more haunting due to the essentially alien hum of the Hinchcliffe-era TARDIS, is a compelling piece of scripting and delivery, and emphasizes in a way not seen since the earliest scenes with William Hartnell in An Unearthly Child, the truly solitary, lonely and itinerant affliction of the Doctor, the Wandering Who: "I walk in eternity" - harking forward to similar lines from Keith Baron's Eternal in the impeccable Edwardian sci-fantasy, Enlightenment: "I exist nowhere, in the endless wastes of eternity."
Michael Sheard as Laurence Scarman also puts in one of his proverbially dexterous performances, capturing human sympathies while Baker's most alien interpretation of the central role inspires our curiosity in his sometimes seemingly callous emotional detachment: in particular the iconic scene in which Sarah frustratedly accuses him of not being "human" as the Doctor finishes for her - a chilling emphasis on the Doctor's extraterrestrial amorality not seen again until Christopher Eccleston's lecture to Rose about the new "morality" which she has to "get used to", in The Unquiet Dead.
My only real criticisms of Pyramids - apart from the unavoidable admission that the true face of Sutekh when revealed near to the end is highly unconvincing and strongly reminiscent of the Kultan in The Tomorrow People story Worlds Away, filmed, I think, in the same year, and with uncannily similar pyramid scenes and Egyptology themes - is that this is one of the only Holmes-penned stories which lacks any characteristically beguiling double-acts or, ultimately, any truly three-dimensional characters. But in a way this is part of the story's beauty, in that the lack of any significantly affecting incidental characters only adds to the sense of isolation of the Doctor and Sarah, as well as allowing the script to focus most memorably on the more compelling and opaque depths of the Doctor himself.
In light of my gushing praise for this story it's worthy of note that Pyramids was the first story I ever saw on VHS, back in 1986, and one which then I found rather plodding and ponderous. It's amazing how one's opinions and tastes genuinely can change with age, because now I see this story in a totally different light, as a beautifully executed period piece with a genuinely enthralling and convincingly disturbing atmosphere; and to coin the inevitable cliche, a true Who classic.
Classic, lasting, enthralling, enigmatic... just like the pyramids by Steve Ressel 13/8/11
Holmes & Hinchcliffe really hit their full potential with this story. It took them a while, and much of the earlier seven stories were quite good, but this was where it came together in all ways. There was nothing palpably wrong with Pyramids of Mars, and it upped the horrific qualities of Doctor Who quite well. It was a story that is visually well-designed, excellently acted, excellently directed, brilliantly written, and it is emotional, adventurous, fantastic and challenging.
It uses many of the favorite hallmarks of Holmes: puzzles, preternatural powers, possession, fanaticism and annihilation. Holmes also loved stories which burned through plenty of bodies across the episodes, and this is no exception. More intriguing was how Holmes' era always reached backwards to go forward; the mummies and mysticism of Egypt were classic cliches by 1975. Yet he took the central images of those well-worn monster films, coming on the heels of revived Tutankammun relic fever in the press, and turned them into something new and fresh unlike what came before. Brilliant.
When these stories were broadcast in America, they were initially, in most markets, shown on Saturday afternoons. Perfect slot for these as "movies", since most of my generation had worn on the oft repeated UHF slew of Saturday afternoon horror-sci-adventure-comedies of the 30's through 60's. And here it was: a modern version that rolled everything on UHF into one, concise, completely entrancing package. Better, it came with a sense of intelligence, self-awareness and emotional depth. It was pure escapism for all ages, playing off the cliches, stereotypes, archetypes and situations of familiar works, and imbuing it all with a more dynamic, melodramatic and believable flair unlike most everything made in the USA at the time.
Pyramids was the where it all combined into the best of the best of Doctor Who. It survives as classic television, classic adventure, classic sci-fi, classic sci-fantasy and just plain, darn-good, all-round, re-watchable entertainment for all ages.